St. Tropez's harbor
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Saint-Tropez conjures up images of the good life, beautiful people, yachts and paparazzi. Yet, that luscious strip of seacoast in the Cote d'Azur region was once a sleepy fishing village offering little more retail panache than a few sandal makers. The balmy Mediterranean spot was first adopted in the 19th century by writers and artists, who migrated there from Paris in the summers. It became an international sensation in the 1960's after Brigitte Bardot put on a bikini and starred in a film ("And God Created Woman," directed by her then-husband Roger Vadim). She liked the area so much that she settled in the community, and the photographers followed. Then, other celebrities showed up. And ... voila.
But what's with the name? Who has ever heard of a saint named Tropez? The story told is this: In 1055, one of Nero's centurions (a certain fellow named Torpes) refused to forsake his religion and was beheaded in Pisa. His body and head were placed in a boat, along with a dog and a rooster. The animals were supposed to eat his body and conceal the crime, but when the boat floated into the estuary of what was then called Athenopolis, the head and body were found intact. Apparently, the dog watched over it and protected it. The town name was changed to Ecclesia Sancti Torpetis, and after the French Revolution, it became Saint-Tropez.
Because of medieval Fido's loyalty, it's said that dogs in Saint-Tropez bear as much cachet today as any rich movie star, and it's also said that you can get in anywhere, even into the packed and exclusive Les Caves du Roy night club, if you bring a well-dressed dog. And indeed, as you amble the streets and squares around this charming village, you see lots of well-behaved pooches with their owners, enjoying the Provencal sun.
The first things that you see when you arrive in the harbor, however, are the glamorous yachts at anchor or maneuvering into the port. The yachts that do find berths in the old port harbor are smaller than the floating palaces at anchor, but they are also the ones that back up their aft ends to the quais so the occupants can lunch in full view of the walking, gawking masses. It's quite a show. And also expensive: It costs 5,000 euros per day to dock a yacht in the old port harbor during the official summer "social season," from July 10 to August 15. Berths are typically booked for three years in advance.
The town itself is a jumble of ochre-colored buildings surrounding the port and narrow streets and alleys that climb away from it to the hills above. The Citadelle, an ancient fortress on a rise, stands guard and is visible from the sea. Most of the town's industry depends on tourism, but what you have when you strip away the celebrities, the yachts and the paparazzi is a happy, comfortable place -- a small French town with history and a sense of place, a maritime sensibility, world-renowned sandals and the famous Tarte Tropezienne, a cream-and-sponge cake developed by a relocated Pole from a recipe he got from his grandmother.
It's a glorious place, the perfect embodiment of the French Riviera, smaller than Nice or Cannes -- even without a stellar beach. The best thing about Saint-Tropez is that you can make it your own and choose the way you want to see it -- playground for spoiled rich folk or charming little Provencal town.
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Other Western Mediterranean Cruise Ports:
Barcelona • Cannes • Capri • Corsica (Ajaccio) • Elba • Florence (Livorno) • Fuerteventura • Genoa • Gibraltar • Ibiza • La Palma • Lanzarote • Las Palmas • Lisbon • Madeira (Funchal) • Malta (Valletta) • Marseille • Monaco • Naples • Nice • Palermo • Palma de Mallorca • Portofino • Rome (Civitavecchia) • Saint-Tropez • Sardinia • Sete • Seville (Cadiz) • Sorrento • Taormina (Giardini-Naxos) • Tenerife • Tunis (La Goulette) • Venice • Villefranche
Sandals "Tropeziennes," specifically from Atelier Rondini (18 rue G. Clemenceau; 04-94-97-19-55) or K. Jacques (25 rue Allard and 16 rue Seillon; 04-94-97-41-50). Originally inspired by the sandals worn by Roman soldiers, they are handmade, prized and precious. Rondini has been around since 1927 (the store is on its third generation of family artisans) and K. Jacques has served the "beautiful people" as well as locals since 1933. Other locally produced items include perfume, pottery, olive wood products and paintings and clothing of Provencal fabric. Notably, all of the global luxury brands have shops in Saint-Tropez, and in summer, many of the top companies test their new lines in pop-up stores.
French is the local tongue, but English, Italian and German are widely spoken in the tourist areas.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency is the euro. For up-to-the-minute conversion rates, check www.xe.com or www.oanda.com. There are several banks and ATM's in the main area of town and along the sea wall adjacent to the yachts. A "Bureau de Change" (where you can exchange dollars for euros and cash traveler's checks) is located at 1 rue Francois Sibill, which is also near the yacht harbor; it charges a commission for each transaction.
Where You're Docked
Saint-Tropez is a tender port. Tenders arrive in the center of town near the yachts, restaurants, shops and open-air vendors.
Hanging around the area where the tenders pull up, unlike at most tender docks, is quite enjoyable. A good place to get your bearings is the tourist office, where you can pick up pamphlets or maps and ask the English-speaking representatives about bus schedules. It is located in the old port at quai Jean Jaures, a few steps from the popular Senequier cafe, with its distinctive red chairs and awning. The tourist office is open every day except Sundays from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Nearby, street vendors sell paintings, jewelry and maritime baubles. And if nothing else, you can eyeball the too-fabulous yachts while waiting for the tender to bring you back to your ship.
If you aren't venturing out of Saint-Tropez, walking is your best transportation option. The town is a delight for strolling; hours can pass as you go from shop to shop, gawk at the yachts, sit in leafy squares or sip a cafe au lait. A couple of beaches are within (long) walking distance, or you can take a cab. A 10 percent gratuity is typical for taxi rides. Some cabs accept U.S. dollars if arrangements are made in advance. Taxis are not abundant, but they do troll the seafront street for fares.
The city has a bus system, but most buses and their routes are not clearly marked; most go outside the city rather than serve a route within it. You can pick up a schedule at the tourist office.
The area right around Saint-Tropez is fairly flat, so if you feel ambitious, you can rent a bicycle or Honda scooter for the day at Holiday Bikes (14 avenue du General Leclerc; 04-94-97-09-39). If you're planning to travel into the hills surrounding the town or as far away as the beaches at St. Maximes, a car rental might be the best option: Locazur is a local agency (9 ZA Saint-Claude Route des Plages; 04-94-97-57-85) or you can book in advance through Hertz or Avis.
Watch Out For
Saint-Tropez is a pretty clean, safe place. The biggest danger during the daytime is that you might get gouged by an unscrupulous cab driver. Make sure the meter is running, and the cab should also be clearly marked with its number. If you have any doubts, wait for another.
Strolling: This is an ideal small town in which to wander and amble. You can window shop, admire the gardens, gawk at the exquisite multimillion-dollar yachts or sip a cafe au lait or fine red wine. Charming little streets and alleyways emerge onto breezy squares. On Tuesdays and Saturdays, there's an open market at Place des Lices, the main square; during the rest of the tourist season, from May through most of September, there are street musicians, vendors and locals playing boules or bocce.
The Citadelle: Climb the hill to this ancient fortress above so-called "Millionaires' Bay." A maritime history museum, five years in the making, made its debut there in 2013. It's located in a dungeon and documents the daily lives of the men and women who, over the centuries, shaped the Saint-Tropez of today. It is closed on Tuesdays. Even if you don't go in, it's the best spot in town for photo opportunities.
Musee de l'Annonciade: The building for this museum is a chapel dating to the 16th century; it was converted in the 1950's to a museum and became the pride of Saint-Tropez. Through an aggressive acquisition program, the museum now features works from an array of French artists including Seurat, Dufy, Braque, Signac and Matisse. The paintings represent, for the most part, the Pointillist, Fauvist and Nabist periods. (Place Grammont, The Port; open Wednesday to Monday from 10 a.m. to noon and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.)
Maison des Papillons: Just off the central rue Clemenceau is this little house transformed into a butterfly museum. The attraction contains more than 4,500 specimens (dead, not alive) collected by the proprietor, Danny Lartigue, who guides you through the exhibit. Look for the very rare Black Apollo of Mercantour. (9 rue Etienne Berny; open every afternoon except Sundays from 2:30 p.m. to 6 p.m., April 1 to October 30)
Been There, Done That
Beaches: You can walk to the beaches near town, although they are not the nicest. Plage de la Bouillabaisse is the closest, about a mile from the tender dock along the seafront road. There are a couple of nice beachfront restaurants for lunch there, including Bouillabaisse and Golfe Azure. Farther out, Baie de Pampelonne is where you want to go beaching, as this is what Saint-Tropez is all about: beautiful people hanging out in the sun. Located south of town, closer to the village of Ramatuelle, some of the beaches and beach clubs there are quite ritzy. The most popular is Tahiti Beach, named by Forbes magazine as the best topless beach in the world. Beware: You'll see little if any clothing, so if you can't cope, don't go. It's only about seven miles away, but transportation is difficult to find. You can take a cab or get a bus schedule from the tourist office, but most people recommend you rent a scooter for the day.
Boat Excursion: For just a few sous (French coins), you can take a narrated one-hour boat excursion with Transports Maritimes Tropeziens around the Saint-Tropez area. As you weave around the yachts at anchor, you'll see the Citadelle, the maritime cemetery, old Saint-Tropez (La Ponche) and the Bay of Canebiers, plus other sites as determined by the master -- who will also point out the yachts and villas of celebrities. (Old Port; 04-94-55-09-92)
Port-Grimaud: Known as the Venice of the Cote d'Azur, this little port town not far from Saint-Tropez is worth a visit. The actual town of Port-Grimaud is a 60-year-old French-style planned community, where Provencal houses are built on canals and yachts are moored nearby. But walk a ways into the hills above this new town, and you will find a medieval village complete with a castle and fairy bridge. Really ... it's called Fairy Bridge! Les Bateaux Verts runs a water shuttle from Saint-Tropez to Port-Grimaud (04-94-49-29-39).
Wining and dining is a major focus of the French, and this region in particular is known for its locally produced rose wines and fresh fish. Popular dishes include bouillabaisse, salad Nicoise and ratatouille, a tomato-based vegetable accompaniment. Lunch is typically served from noon to 2:30 p.m. A new craze: Ice Tropez, a sparkling cocktail made with wine flavored with nectarine blossoms. Generally, a service tip is included in the bill. However, it is customary to leave a few coins.
La Boite a Sardines: This cute little bistro located about halfway between the port area and the Citadelle serves Marseillaise-style food, very Provencal in flavor and not terribly fussy with cream sauces. Fresh, regional food and fish are the specialties; there's a quite affordable fixed-price lunch menu. (3 rue Saint Jean; 04-94-56-48-08)
L'Olivier: This gorgeous restaurant is located in the small, tony hotel La Bastide de Saint-Tropez, in the hills above the gulf. It is a budget buster but offers up a memorable taste of the finest Provencal cuisine. Specialties include duck fois gras on two cushions, roasted monkfish and lobster ravioli. There's a costly fixed-price lunch menu, but it's worth the euros to sit under the ancient olive trees, around the pool or inside the glass-domed conservatory and realize that you, too, are one of the beautiful people. (Route des Carles; 04-94-55-82-55)
Sous le Soleil: Playing on the name of a popular and long-running television show in France, this little bistro is located in the new port, just to the right of where the tender drops you off. It serves simple fare: grilled fish and meats and huge salads. (6 quai de l'epi, Nouveau Port; 04-94-97-53-90)
Le Cochon du Mer: Located just at the edge of the new port, not far from the tender dock, this seaside cafe specializes in Provencal and Marseillaise cooking: lots of simply prepared fresh seafood with Mediterranean ingredients. We just love the name of the place, which means "Pig of the Sea." Pricing is a la carte. (1 quai de l'Epi; 04-94-97-46-00)
Staying in Touch
Kreatik Cafe features a high-speed Internet and gaming center. (19 avenue General Leclerc; 04-94-97-40-61; open year-round Tuesday to Sunday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.)
Best for a Taste of Provence: Take a motorcoach tour to the inland villages of Ramatuelle, Gassin and Grimaud in the hills above the Bay of Saint-Tropez. These charming little towns are far from the glamour of the Riviera and are populated by workers and craftspeople. You'll get a glimpse of real Provencal life through the towns' shops, cafes, churches and architecture. It's a half-day tour, which will still leave plenty of time to wander the cobblestoned streets of Saint-Tropez itself.
Best for Wine Lovers: This tour also takes you into the hills around Saint-Tropez to the Chateau Saint Maur Winery and the village of Grimaud, once owned by the Grimaldi family of Monaco. You'll have a guided walking tour in Grimaud and be able to sample some regional varieties at the family run Chateau.
Best for French Chef Wannabes: Anyone who's ever wanted to take a small course in French cooking will be delighted with this excursion. After a short walk to La Table du Marches restaurant, you'll meet your instructor and start preparing your own lunch. You'll learn how to select ingredients, prepare them and arrange them for presentation. You'll also get a wine tasting of regional varieties as you sample what you've prepared.
Best for History Buffs: This half-day tour takes you to the small village of Frejus in the Maures Mountains, which was founded by Julius Caesar in 49 B.C. In fact, it still uses the amphitheater built in the first century. It once held 10,000 spectators and is used today for concerts and bullfights.
For More Information
On the Web: Saint-Tropez Tourist Office
Cruise Critic Message Boards: France Ports
IndependentTraveler.com: Europe Travel Guide
--by Jana Jones, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Ellen Uzelac, Cruise Critic contributor